A move from London back North inspired a change of path for Jason Stocks-Young, who stars in a new BBC2 series about traditional craftmaking in the UK. As he learned about leather, he tells Stephanie Smith, he also learned about himself. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Jason Stocks-Young’s leather workshop is a world where the timeless meets the contemporary.
Solid oak work benches, surely at least 100 years old, stand alongside their modern-day equivalents, all blond wood and clean lines. Waxes and tools of the trade line up on traditional craftworkers’ shelves, against walls painted a moody and luxurious slate grey eggshell. There’s a vintage Singer sewing machine (once used to make the championship belts for Big Daddy), a black leather Eames chair, a camera tripod floor lamp and intriguing curios everywhere, each with a story to tell. Chilled-out instrumental music – a Spotify playlist – percolates the air.
High within a converted cotton mill at Mossley, in the foothills of the Pennines, this is a considered space, beautifully created and curated. It reflects a rarely encountered attention to detail.
Yorkshireman Jason and his craftsmanship are set to feature in a new TV documentary series, Made In Great Britain, beginning this Friday, hosted by Steph McGovern.
The premise of the show, he explains, is to celebrate traditional crafts up and down the UK. “So you’ve got cheese in Wensleydale, chocolate in York, hats in Luton, shoes in Northampton, steel in Sheffield, pottery in Stoke,” Jason says. Filmed over six weeks, he joins three fellow modern British crafters, a chef, a ceramicist, and Whitby blacksmith Katie Ventress. The series follows their progress as they take up the challenge of learning the skills of all six crafts, trying their hand at both the early and the modern-day methods of production.
“We were making pots in the 17th century,” Jason says. “You learn a lot about yourself, about your craft and about other crafts. Back in the day, they were the purest craftsmen in every sense of the word. They had rudimentary tools to create these beautiful pieces, whether they were making shoes, cheese, hats – you just cannot believe it, and you just can’t be anything but in awe.”
Now 49, Jason was nearly 40 before he discovered his affinity for leather working. His parents, who were originally from Jamaica, met while his father was in the Army. They moved around before settling in Farsley, Leeds, where Jason was born and lived with his sisters and mum, Dorothy, after his parents divorced. “My mum did two jobs trying to put food on the table,” he says. “You try and just find your way.”
Leeds in the 1980s was far from multiracial and his experience at secondary school was sometimes brutal. “There were 982 kids there at the time and I was the only black guy, so the first, second and third years were… well, there’s hell, and below that is where I was,” he says. “I was in hospital for three days because I’d been beaten up. It just toughens you up. It’s like Yorkshire grit, and I’ve got plenty of that.”
He left school at 16 and began working in fashion shops in Leeds. His mum found him a job at a law firm and he did a secretarial course. “She didn’t want me to go down the wrong path,” he says.
He met Louise, who is from Boston Spa, at the Warehouse in Leeds when he was 18. When she left for university in London, he followed and began working with computers and desktop publishing, landing a job as a publishing assistant at Ogilvy & Mather advertising, and working at Paul Smith at the weekends.
In the following years, Jason was at the forefront of creative digital marketing, working for agencies in London and internationally as a studio manager, creative director and producer, on campaigns for Guinness, Coke, British Airways, T-mobile, Whitbread and Adidas.
“I learned a lot about myself but, at the end of it, I still felt that empty void,” he says.
When a hip replacement meant he could no longer play football, he began looking for a creative outlet. By now, he and Louise had married, in 2006, and decided to leave London, so they sold their flat in Whitechapel and moved back to Yorkshire in 2008, choosing Holmfirth as their home.
Jason began a furniture restoration course and was soon being asked to makeover pieces for clients. Then, at Identity Leather Craft in Matlock, he studied leather working. The first piece he made was a card holder, now kept in a cabinet.
“It’s the feel, first and foremost, of leather,” he says. I started to feel and think about different sorts of leathers and hides and animals and it just resonated with me. It just feels right, like something I was born to do.
“There are so many different things you can do with leather, but also you’ve got to have a responsible attitude. It’s a natural by-product. The meat industry is what it is, and if people weren’t doing something with the hides, it would go in landfill.”
The premium leathers Jason uses, kept in rolls on high shelves, come from Italy and the UK, via Northampton, where they are tanned using oak leaves, bark and berries. He pulls down a beautiful brown leather roll from Britain’s only remaining traditional oak bark tannery, in Devon. It’s covered in a sheen of natural wax which melts back in when he rubs it. In Japan, he says, premium leather products come with a pad of sheep’s wool for buffing. He will make belts with it, costing £150, with brass fittings from Walsall. He makes notebooks, card and passport holders, too, and bags. He shows me a prototype with an arched shape, inspired by Saddleworth Moor. All hand-stitched, it feels both luxurious and reassuringly real.
Through his Diamond Awl Leather Workshops, Jason passes on his skills and love for leather (a diamond awl is a tool traditionally used by a saddler, with a sharp diamond-shaped point to punch holes). “You need to put the hole in, then stitch straight away,” he says. There are one-day courses where up to six students can learn how to make a small piece such as a card-holder, wallet or passport holder, and two-day courses making tote and messenger bags. “I’ve put my heart and soul in it,” he says. “I’m sharing the enjoyment of something I’m passionate about. It’s from the heart, it’s pure, it’s honest.”
Newly launched is Jason’s one-day course hand-making trainers. Louise, who teaches Fashion Management & Communication at Sheffield Hallam University, was his first student. “I wouldn’t have been doing any of this if it weren’t for Louise,” he says.
Earlier this year, Jason was one of four makers invited to take part in the Future Artisan Craft area at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show. He’s still learning though, he says. “I don’t want to stop learning with leather, because that’s where the enjoyment is. You get past that point in your life where you dwell on stuff that’s wrong all the time. I feel I’m a bit older now to be able to manage it and even share that kind of thinking with other students who want to learn. You’ll do it. Don’t expect to get it right the first time.
“I spent a lot of time working with digital technology, dwelling on the past, worrying about the future, never really focusing on where I am right now. Now I’d like to just take every day as it comes. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it’s true, because you have to be in the present and now to do what I do. That works for me.”
Jason Stocks-Young’s courses can be found at https://www.diamondawl.co.uk/
JS-Y Leatherworks handmade goods is at https://www.jsyleatherworks.co.uk/ Instagram: @jsyleatherworks
Made In Great Britain begins on BBC2 on Friday, October 26, at 9pm.